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On Heckling

I perform over 400 shows a year. Each year about four of those shows are ruined by a loud drunk person who thinks the show is going to be about them. As a younger comic, when I didn’t have much of an act, I hoped for a loud drunk person who I could banter with because that was more entertaining than my show. I would ask the audience questions to lead into bits. I would lose my place or pause for too long after a joke that didn’t work. I would say things to insult or challenge the crowd in hopes that someone would yell out so I could leave my act and waste time getting laughs at their expense. Often, the person in the crowd who I bantered with would buy me a drink after the show or take a picture with me and tell me how they made my show better. Back then, they did. I didn’t have much of a show. As I matured as a comic and wrote more I started to take out the questions, to not insult or challenge the crowd, to not instigate or invite that sort of participation. My act became a show, the audience was there to watch and listen, not to participate. I learned about pace and timing. I discovered that if I ignore obnoxious people in my crowd early on, there is a bit of vigilante justice. The people who aren’t distracted laugh at my act and the people near the offender quiet them down. My act is a work in progress, I’m constantly evolving and learning and this is where I’m at right now.

There are other comics who work the same venues I do who are at a different stage in their development, some of them have been at it a lot longer than me, others don’t have as much experience, who prefer to go into the crowd, who can’t wait to stop their act and insult the drunk girl who wants attention or banter with the ‘life of the party’ guy who tries to beat the comic to his own punch line. Some people do not have the right personality to be part of a crowd. They are used to attention, they are talkers, not listeners. When they get to the comedy show and realize everybody is watching and listening to someone else, they get competitive for that attention. I ignore these people for the first five minutes of my show. If they aren’t loud enough to disturb anybody but their own party, I continue to ignore them. If people around them are shushing them, I stop my show, often times off the microphone so it doesn’t look like it is part of the show. I’m very careful not to get a laugh while doing this, I think it is important that this person knows that they aren’t part of the show and that they aren’t contributing to it. I’m also careful not to use any insulting words. I don’t call them ‘drunk’ or ‘slut’ or ‘asshole’. I say to them,

‘You are disturbing the people around you, you need to be quiet or you need to leave.’

Then I go back to my act. If I have to do it again, I’m more forceful. I tell them,

‘You are being very selfish, the people around you can’t hear my punch lines or appreciate my jokes because you are talking too much.’

If I have to go back a third time I will invite them to look at the crowd and ask people in the audience to raise their hands if they are being distracted, just to put into perspective how many people aren’t getting the most out of my show because of the attention monger. If it continues, and this hardly ever happens, I will stop the show and tell them that I’m not continuing until they leave. A security guard or bouncer will often step in at this point and escort the person out of the room. Most of my shows are on cruise ships where we don’t have security or a bouncer in the room. So I just sit there until the person leaves. Many times the crowd will get involved at this point and start yelling at the person to get out.

This only happens one or two times a year to me and while I think it ruins the whole show, most of the audience will tell me that they enjoyed the show just fine. I always tell those people that they should really see a show where I don’t have to kick someone out so they can compare. I feel that comedians have created this phenomenon. Comics like myself early in my career who gave these people the attention they so desperately wanted, who made the show about them, who got their biggest laughs playing with these people from the stage have given some people the wrong idea of what a comedy show is supposed to be. People still don’t sit down front unless there aren’t any other seats available. I will tell the crowd before my show that I will not be making fun of anyone in the audience, I have material. I grew up listening to and loving comedy albums. I never heard an album from one of my comedy heroes that was all about the drunk lady in the front row. What I loved about the albums was the material and that is what I try to present. I won’t let a selfish audience member dictate the direction of my show.

I kicked a girl out of my show a few weeks back. She was in the front row yelling at me and raising her hand, stepping all over my rhythm and my punch lines. The people around her were very annoyed. The first two times I talked to her I was very polite, I addressed her off the microphone and the crowd couldn’t hear what I was saying. I made it clear that she wasn’t part of the show. The fifth time I had to stop, I stopped the show and made her leave. After the show she confronted me with her boyfriend. They both said they didn’t understand why I kicked her out. I explained that the people around her couldn’t enjoy my show. She just looked at me, confused. Then she smiled and said ‘Oh, I stole the show.’ And the truth is, she did. Stealing is a crime, it is taking something that doesn’t belong to you. I have a certain number of punch lines in my show and the audience is entitled to all of them, every joke that this girl ruined, she stole, from nice, hardworking people who were on a vacation and who wanted to enjoy an entire comedy show, not just the bits they could hear over the screaming girl in the front row.

Another time I had a guy who commented on all of my jokes, obviously trying to engage me. I told him twice to ‘be quiet or leave’. He stopped and let me finish the show. After the show he asked me why I didn’t ‘mess with him.’ I told him that the show is better when I get to do the material I planned without interruptions. He said, ‘I disagree.’ So I replied,

‘How could you possibly know? You’ve never been at a show without you in the audience, I’ve done thousands of shows without you in the audience, trust me it is better when you don’t interrupt or interject.’

He left in a huff.

I would never tell a comic what to do onstage, but if the stock heckler line that you use gets a bigger response from the crowd than your planned material, I’d challenge you to plan better material. I’d also never tell an audience member how to enjoy my show. I will say that you don’t have to be afraid to sit down front, I have a plan, and it doesn’t include humiliating you. Also, if you can’t handle not being the center of attention for a little while, I wouldn’t come to my show. Every show isn’t for everybody. This is how I feel right now about hecklers, how to avoid them, and how to handle them. In ten years when I have another 4,000 shows under my belt, I might have a different philosophy, I doubt it, but we’ll see.

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